Dr Nina Ansary is a visiting fellow at the Centre and, through generous gifts to its activity, has become its first philanthropic patron. A women’s rights activist, bestselling author and historian, Dr Ansary is a leading authority on women’s rights in Iran, her home country. Her book Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of Women in Iran won the 2016 International Book Award in the ‘Women’s Issues’ category, and she has been appointed as one of six UN Women Champions for Innovation.
Her own personal experiences resonate strongly with the mission of LSE WPS. “As a woman born in Iran during a socially liberal pre-revolutionary period, I witnessed a radical shift in the lives of its women,” she says. “In light of the daily violations against women in my home country, it is extraordinary for me to be part of a space that provides academic understanding and expertise – one that builds partnerships that further the ongoing courageous attempts to reverse discriminatory laws and fight for justice and human rights.”
Dr Ansary believes that creating change in countries such as Iran and beyond requires a spotlight being shone on these issues by the international community, and sees the Centre as playing a vital role in doing so. “Bringing issues of gender-based violence to the attention of the international community at large has been shown to make a difference,” she says. “Any voice on the outside that helps place such regimes under a magnifying glass are most helpful – from the perspective of my work, being a small part of this centre is tremendous.”
The multitude of issues related to women in conflict cannot be divorced from wider gender discrimination across the world, argues Dr Ansary: “The global community faces a series of interconnected challenges, and I believe the securing of women’s social, economic and political rights is chief among them. We must address the present imbalance which sees women in decision-making processes underrepresented and undervalued in practically all sectors.”
This in particular presents a serious barrier surrounding women and conflict – meaning that as agents of change in leadership positions, more women need to be part of the solution. “We cannot afford to build walls instead of bridges by excluding half of the world’s resource from participation in this arena – if women comprise half of every community, why would they not constitute half of the solution?” she reasons.
The answer in part lies in tackling society’s deep-rooted stereotypical gender-based assumptions, including in developed countries which are seen as being more progressive. “A recent study in US elementary schools asked students to draw their vision of a leader, and eight out of ten drew a man,” she comments. “No one is born with such an assumption but it is inbred in our societies– maybe we need to start at an elementary level and have more educators negate this kind of mindset.
Dr Ansary cites India as an inspiring example in which these assumptions have been successfully challenged: “In 1993 its constitution was amended to implement gender quotas for village leaders. Over time exposure to female leaders has been shown to directly have an impact on young girls in terms of leadership, aspiration and education. But as long as women are not in these positions they cannot enact meaningful lasting change, including addressing issues and challenges surrounding women in conflict.”
In the Centre for Women, Peace and Security, Dr Ansary sees the ideal setting for achieving tangible progress on this front. “LSE and the Centre can play a pivotal role,” she says. “Not only in the School’s ability to identify and address challenges, but to shift the focus to a wider agenda of change.”
She also points to the Centre’s value as a research forum, with links to both governmental and non-governmental institutions; it can provide the necessary comprehensive arguments for the inclusion of a greater number of women in peace processes and post-conflict state building.
The Centre’s multi-faceted nature is particularly appealing to Dr Ansary. “When you have a community of scholars, practitioners, activists and policymakers who are combining their activities in various fields and working towards the same vision, I think that is priceless,” she says.
While Dr Ansary believes that LSE’s academic reputation ‘speaks for itself’, providing the Centre with a world renowned ‘seal of approval’, it is its students enrolled on the School’s MSc in Women, Peace and Security that she has found most inspiring in her work to date as a visiting fellow: “Most have overcome great challenges in their lives to reach this summit. Each and every one I have met is outstanding in their own way – they are passionate, dedicated and inquisitive.”
“This is most welcome,” she continues. “We desperately need a generation of young minds to go out and make a decisive difference.”
Her belief in the mission of the Centre has led Dr Ansary to make a series of philanthropic gifts, resulting in her becoming its first named patron. She is particularly eager to see others follow in her footsteps.
“Given my passion as a women’s rights activist, I cannot stress enough the importance of raising awareness,” she explains. “But creating and sustaining a durable infrastructure that can enact meaningful change requires long term core funding. Philanthropy constitutes an essential component – investing in women and girls is key to building an institutional base for women’s rights and achieving sustainable and long-lasting change.”